Heading into 2013 most circled this week's Sunday Night Football game between the Patriots (3-0) and Falcons (1-2) in Atlanta as New England's first real test of the new season. And even with the Patriots having to fight to the finish to beat the division-rival Bills and Jets to open the year while the Falcons have stumbled out of the gates a bit, the game remains a key early season road contest to find out where Bill Belichick's team is in its development. Matt Ryan and the Falcons can put points on the board, especially at in front of a loud crowd at home at the Georgia Dome. Tom Brady's offense was better last week, but the passing attack may not be quite primetime ready for a shootout. The Falcons are looking to pull to .500 and avoid falling too far behind the Saints in the NFC South. The Patriots look to pull to 4-0 for the first time since 2007, while potentially keeping pace in the AFC East with a Dolphins team that knocked off Atlanta just last weekend. Both teams have plenty of play for and NBC gets one of the most intriguing games of the week. As you enjoy all the appetizer games throughout the weekend leading up to Sunday night's main course, stay intellectually hydrated with this measuring-stick, Hotlanta edition of the Patriots at Falcons Pregame Six-Pack!
- Gronk a go?** – Rob Gronkowski has now been listed as limited in practice and questionable to play in the game each of the last two weeks. He was inactive last week against the Bucs, but everyone agrees he's making progress. He also had his game travel bag packed – for what little that information is worth – on Friday afternoon in the Gillette Stadium locker room. Gronkowski's return would obviously be a huge boost to the offense in a game where it's most likely going to need to score a decent number of points to win. That impact would probably be its greatest in the red zone, where the Patriots have the worst production in the NFL through three weeks. Gronkowski wouldn't only be an option to score, but he would take pressure off the other targets, especially the young players still trying to get on the same page with Brady. Some reports have indicated that Gronkowski may not be quite ready to play. We'll get the first indication by whether he travels to Atlanta with the team on Saturday or not. Then, we'll find out if Gronk is ready to return to action on Sunday night. If he does, it goes a long way toward increasing New England's chances of road success.
- Match up Talib?** – Aqib Talib has been tasked with manning up with opponents' top receivers throughout his first year in New England. That included big-bodied beasts like Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin and, last week, Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson. It's a huge plus for the defense when Talib can be competitive with a top target. Julio Jones is clearly Ryan's top target right now. He's tied for the NFL lead (with New England's Julian Edelman) with 27 receptions. He's big – 6-3, 220. He's fast. He can make plays down the field. He can turn short catches into big plays. He can pretty much do it all. It would be a huge challenge for any cornerback to match up with Jones one-on-one, including Talib. Maybe the Patriots use Talib with some safety help. Maybe they use Talib elsewhere and double Jones. Whatever the decision – and it could be different schemes on different plays – it will go a long way toward what the Patriots can do with the rest of Ryan's impressive cast of targets. Jones is the key leader of the passing attack in Atlanta and priority No. 1 for the Patriots defense. But New England also has to deal with a banged up Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas. I'm sure that Talib thinks he's capable of handling his former NFC South foe. I'm not sure if he is. And I wonder what Belichick and Matt Patricia think? We'll find out on Sunday night.
- Make Matty Ice feel the heat** – Chandler Jones and the Patriots pass rush have been building a little steam early in the new season. Jones leads New England with three sacks. He'll be matched up with either banged-up Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker or second-year player Lamar Holmes, who bumps over from right tackle. Holmes held his own last week against the Dolphins filling in for Baker, who was upgraded to limited in practice later in the week dealing with foot and knee issues. Regardless, it's a matchup that Jones should have an advantage in. Ryan has been sacked five times through the first two weeks and has only thrown two picks. But if Jones and the rest of his front-seven mates can get after the quarterback it could go a long way toward slowing the potentially high-powered Falcons passing attack. It's a new year, but Atlanta did have the No. 6 passing game in the NFL a year ago. And Ryan is one of just six quarterbacks with a passer rating over 100 through the first three weeks of 2013. The best way to slow that down, and maybe take the home crowd out of the equation early, is to get after the franchise QB and put him on his back. That starts with Jones.
- Committee contribution** – On paper the Falcons had a middle of the pack rushing defense a year ago and are pretty good in that area to open the new season. But Miami had success on the ground last week and the Patriots certainly would seem to have the weapons in the backfield to run at an undersized and banged up Atlanta defensive front. New England has topped 150 yards in two of the first three weeks. It would be nice to see such a performance and then some in the Georgia Dome. As we all know, running the ball not only helps balance out the offense and take pressure off the passing attack, but it also keeps Ryan and his weapons on the sideline. Brandon Bolden had a nice impact in beating the Bucs and him being healthy adds another element to the offense as the passing back filling in for Shane Vereen. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount also should be ready to run behind an offensive line that wants to run block, like all lines do. Marcus Cannon may have to fill in for Sebastian Vollmer on the right side, but as a guy who also plays guard he should be more than ready to work as a run blocker. The Patriots will never run their heads into the proverbial brick wall just to be balanced on offense. But this is a case where running the ball could and should be a positive option for the offense on the road.
5. Quiet the crowd/critics – Noise will be an issue for the Patriots offense. Guys like Brady and his offensive line have dealt with all that before. But it will be interesting to see how rookie receivers react to the crazy, indoor, loud environment of a primetime game on the road in a dome. They haven't always been on the same page with Brady when they could hear him and the snap count. Will that be worse with silent counts and more difficult communication? Will the energy and the spot be too big for them, as it seemed at times during their last primetime game against the Jets in Week 2? Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have a lot of pressure on them as rookie receivers being counted on to contribute in a big way for Brady's passing attack. That will only be magnified in this spot in their first career road primetime dome game. Another learning experience. Another chance to either fuel or quiet the critics, and the Falcons crowd.
6. Secondary depth – Kyle Arrington seemed to have his reps limited in the second half last week against the Bucs, playing just three snaps. He then was limited during practice this week with a groin injury. Depending on how you look at things Arrington is either New England's No. 2 corner or top slot corner. Either way he's key to the pass defense, especially against a team like the Falcons that has the weapons to challenge any nickel defense. If Arrington is limited or can't go, that would thrust rookie Logan Ryan into an elevated role. The third-round pick is pretty untested and green at this point, and that is a dangerous state to be in on the road against Ryan, Jones, White and the rest of the Falcons aerial attack. Arrington is officially questionable to play, but there is little question that if he does not it would be a big blow to the Patriots pass defense and depth in terms of dealing with the Falcons barrage of weapons.
The Patriots should and likely will be able to run the ball in Atlanta. I also expect that Brady and Co. will make some plays through the air against a Falcons secondary that lacks something, even with a healthier Asante Samuel ball-hawking around his former team. Adding Gronkowski to the passing game would be a big boost against a team that struggles to cover the middle of the field, but I'm not sure it would be enough. This a big game for the Falcons. Not quite a must-win, but pretty important for a team looking to compete for a Super Bowl. Falling to 1-3 would be a pretty bad hole to have to dig out of. This is indeed the first real test for the much-improved Patriots defense. Ryan probably won't miss the throws that the opposing quarterbacks did the first three weeks. Nor will the receivers likely drop the balls the way the opponents helped the Patriots defenders through the first three weeks. The home crowd also should be a major benefit for Mike Smith's team. Put it all together and I see a 31-21 victory for the Falcons. I circled this game as the first loss of the year when the schedule first came out last spring, and I feel pretty much the same way today. If the Patriots do pull this one out on the road, and the defense plays a solid game against Atlanta, then maybe we need to reassess things a bit. But I don't expect that to be the case.